The German Riveter: On translating THE EIGHTH LIFE. A conversation between Charlotte Collins and Ruth Martin

Nino Haratischvili is set to make waves in the UK literary scene with the publication of her stunning epic novel The Eighth Life in English translation. And epic it is, stretching to nearly 1,200 pages in its original German and spanning multiple generations and countries. From Tbilisi to London, Moscow to Berlin, the stories of eight lives from one Georgian family are told with wit, pathos and extraordinary invention. The task of translating this novel, completed as a collaboration between Charlotte Collins and Ruth Martin, was equally epic.

Ruth Martin: Translating this novel with you has been a fascinating process, but the reason for doing it this way was a very practical one: it’s extremely long. I think that’s why a lot of co-translation projects happen, and the benefits to a translator’s own practice and to the book itself (and I do believe it benefits the book as well) are sort of incidental. The people who translated this book into Dutch and French worked on it in pairs as well.

Charlotte Collins: Absolutely. I really wanted to work on The Eighth Life, which was why I pitched it to Philip Gwyn Jones at Scribe. But I knew there was no way I could manage a project like that on my own, especially as – unlike you – I hadn’t had any experience of translating longer works. It seemed obvious that we should translate it together. You and Nino and I all met at the BCLT summer school in 2012, working on excerpts from her earlier book ‘My Gentle Twin’ (Mein sanfter Zwilling), so it felt as if you were already part of the process. And we knew from that workshop that we had a similar approach. Literary translation is all about making choices. Bouncing ideas off each other, coming up with and discussing different options, and having a partner to look at the text with fresh eyes have all been incredibly exciting and fruitful. I imagine it must be pretty painful, though, if co-translators find themselves pulling in very different directions.

RM: The differences in how we work have been interesting as well; we do have a similar approach, but the fact that we are different ages and grew up in different parts of the country means there are subtle variations in our vocabulary and the standard way we translate certain phrases. I think that, as a translator, you can have this illusion that your own voice is somehow ‘neutral’ and you don’t superimpose it over the author’s, but that’s not true – and working collaboratively certainly dispels that illusion.

Our approach to this book was slightly different from the Dutch and French pairs’ – we split it down the middle and then edited each other’s sections, whereas their arrangement was for one translator to draft the whole thing and the other to finesse it afterwards, giving it a consistent tone. In retrospect, do you think that would have worked for us?

CC: Hmm … That doesn’t really appeal to me. It makes me think of artists’ studios where assistants do much of the preparatory work and the master completes the task. With the French and Dutch pairs, one translator was clearly the more experienced of the two, so obviously she was going to oversee the project. That sort of collaboration can certainly be beneficial, but I guess it must work quite differently. You and I, on the other hand, are peers; we have different professional backgrounds, but we both came to literary translation at around the same time. I feel that we ‘own’ our respective sections – although we also worked on the other’s very intensely – and I like that. I’m the one finessing the text to make sure it’s consistent, but that just means I work through our joint notes and make the final decisions.

It’s interesting what you say about the ‘neutral’ voice. Obviously, what we’re trying to do is reproduce the authorial voice in English. Do you think that’s actually possible, or can literary translation only ever be a form of interpretation? If so, how do we make sure we keep faith with the original?

RM: Yes, it’s interpretative to an extent. I mean, the act of reading is itself a form of interpretation, and translation is a very intensive kind of reading. Which is not to say that a translator should set out to impose their own will on a text – just that it’s impossible to erase yourself from the process completely. In any case, the fact that we combed through each other’s work probably does lessen that effect, as well as providing an extra level of bilingual editing that translations don’t usually get. We caught a few little omissions and errors that way.

CC: Yes! That’s definitely one of the main benefits of co-translation, for both translators and editors: the text you submit has already been painstakingly checked, fact-checked and edited by two people. Some argue that the rate for co-translation should in fact be slightly higher, because ideally it should save editors time.

How did you feel about our editing process? We did edit pretty heavily. I remember the first time you saw my computer screen covered in red you looked quite startled!

RM: I really enjoyed it. I agreed with most of your edits, and where I didn’t it was a useful exercise to articulate why I had done something in a particular way. It’s possible to make perfectly valid choices without being fully aware of why you have made them – we do it all the time – but having to justify those choices to someone forces you to work more consciously. I’m glad we know each other well enough to edit without fear of causing offence. The book is better for it – in our case two heads actually are better than one.

This article originally featured in New Books in German

Read The German Riveter in its entirety here.

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Category: The German RiveterThe RiveterNovember 2019 - The German Riveter


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